We know we have problem with low numbers of girls being involved in tech and STEM programs. So what can we do about it? Parents of boys and girls alike have a responsibility. Photosanity founder Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick shares her thoughts.
A few years ago, my oldest son Liam, then five years old, attended a Lego summer camp in Manhattan. I was horrified to notice at drop-off the first day that the entire class was boys – not a single girl had enrolled. Granted, the class was called “Jedi Engineering” which probably accounted for some of the bias (some of the other classes did have girls enrolled), but really? Not a single girl? As a girl, I loved Legos (and Star Wars) and went on to become an architect before I became a photographer, so this made me angry and sad.
Further, as a mother of two boys, I hated the idea that my boys might get the idea that Lego and engineering is only for boys.
Fast forward a few years, and a discussion came up in one of the parenting Facebook groups I’m in about a programming class someone’s son signed up for that also turned out to be all boys. The mother expressed frustration, and I chimed in to agree, but then an interesting discussion ensued where mothers of girls chimed in to say that their daughters don’t always want to sign up to be the minority amongst a group dominated by boys, because the boys shout over them, or talk about things they’re not interested in, or worse, girls are bullied and ostracized.
On the other hand, another line of discussion addressed the fact that in some circles, there is actually tremendous pressure for girls to be involved in math and science, whether they are interested in it or not. As someone who was good at math and science growing up and therefore “strongly encouraged” to pursue these areas, I can relate to that too.
Here are a few points to consider when thinking about girls and tech programs, for parents of boys and girls alike:
Respond to genuine interest rather than forcing or pushing. No matter your child’s gender, it’s important to try to respond to genuine interest from our kids for any subjects or activities. It can be hard to determine exactly what that looks like, and to figure out when it is beneficial to push a child out of their comfort zone a little, and when to let them take the lead.
The first step is to be aware of your own biases. Were there particular subjects or activities you enjoyed as a child that you’re hoping your child will be into as well, or conversely, subjects or activities that you had a dislike for that you might inadvertently be passing onto your child?
Also, try to observe what your child does with their time when it truly is unstructured and up to them, and they aren’t looking to satisfy or impress anyone outside of themselves (one of the reasons why unstructured play time is important for young kids. And don’t rush to sign them up for an activity at the slightest sign of interest either. Give it space to see if it has any teeth first.
Girls might need a little additional encouragement as far as science and tech goes, just to counter the unconscious bias that has surrounded them since birth. Try to expose them to options and opportunities and let them know it is 100% something that is available to them, rather than pushing them towards it. Double check your own biases by imagining how you would handle this if they were a boy. Don’t assume they aren’t interested, just because they’re a girl, or just because they also have very stereotypically “girl” interests.
This is just as much an issue for parents of boys as it is for parents of girls. As a mom of two boys, I passionately believe that it is through making the world a better place for women and girls that we can make the world a better place for all, including our boys. And I am adamant that parents of boys have as much a responsibility in this as parents of girls do – and possibly more.
It’s not enough for women to believe in themselves. Men need to believe in them too, and not just consciously but unconsciously. Therefore, tech or STEM classes that are 100% or predominantly filled with boys are NOT ok for either boys or girls to experience as the norm.
We need more role models to step forward and tell their stories. Personal preference vs cultural expectations are hard to unpack, or rather, I think cultural expectations are hard to counter. We need more role models to step forward and be active in telling their stories and being visible in popular culture as well as in local communities. The book and movie Hidden Figures starts to move the needle on this I think, although it’s hard not to feel like it’s too little too late.
My sister, a pure mathematician, is very active in this issue. She has appeared on the Colbert show, her second book for a mass audience is about to come out, she’s been featured in the New York Times, has a column in the Wall Street Journal, is involved with teacher training, and gives talks at schools and museums. I saw her speak at the Museum of Math in NYC and girls were so excited to go up and talk to her afterwards that I could literally see her making a difference right there in that moment for these girls.
This is just as much a responsibility for parents of boys as for parents of girls. In my Facebook group discussion, the moms of girls asked not to be made solely responsible for encouraging their girls into tech and STEM. I agree. I think that those of us with boys can reach out to our friends who have girls and invite them to sign up for these programs with us, and also encourage the providers of these programs to reach out to girls too.
Tech/STEM program providers can do outreach specifically targeted at girls. We have a local tech summer camp that offers activities that are likely to appeal to both boys and girls. For example, my son will be doing a camp this summer where kids will use green screen technology to create magical effects in movies.
Language on the program website and in marketing materials can explicitly state that girls are welcome and the program is 100% girl friendly. Any photos or other imagery should also reflect this. Of course, this has to actually be true, and I would hope that anything that isn’t close to 50/50 enrollment should not be considered acceptable as the status quo. In fact, I think that parents of boys should research ahead of time and boycott any tech/STEM programs that don’t have any or many girls – and let them know why.
And while we’re at it, let’s be sure to be inclusive of other minorities too. But that’s a post for another day.
Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick is a family photographer turned photography coach for parents. She founded Photosanity to help parents find joy & connection through photographing their kids. Born and brought up in the UK, Alethea lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her two sons, Liam, age 8, and Jack, age 5.
Alethea has taught workshops at the Apple Store, Brooklyn Baby Expo, Brooklyn Babybites (now Mommybites) and online through Photosanity.com and other platforms. She has been interviewed on 1010WINS and featured in The Daily Mail, Cool Mom Picks, Apartment Therapy, Ask Moxie and Mom365.